Thinking about taking an epic road trip through Southern California? The experience won’t be complete without at least one day in San Diego. You can easily spend multiple days in “America’s Finest City.” But if you only have 24 hours, it’ll be action-packed with plenty to do for both young and old.
Like in much of California, you’ll find plenty of sandy beaches around San Diego. But the SoCal coastal city also boasts family-friendly parks, fun boardwalks, amazing sunset views, and charming nightlife, especially in the city’s famous Gaslamp Quarter.
Not sure what to do in San Diego in 24 hours? Plan your ultimate trip with this complete one-day San Diego itinerary for first-time visitors.
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Where to go in San Diego in one day: A complete itinerary
Enjoy a seaside adventure at La Jolla
Over the course of your memorable day, you’ll slowly make your way closer to downtown, hitting up all the top sights. Before all that, your first 24 hours in San Diego has to begin in the charming seaside town of La Jolla.
With so many things to see & do in La Jolla, you’ll want to get an early start, and, as with every early morning, you’ll need your coffee. Start your time in La Jolla by stopping by Better Buzz Coffee. Just a few blocks back from the Pacific Ocean, grab your favorite hot or cold drink, breakfast sandwiches, and bowls before exploring the nearby sightseeing highlights.
From the cafe, it’s just a short stroll to the Coast Walk Trail. This scenic 0.6-mile hike offers some of the finest views in San Diego. The well-maintained trail is suitable for most hikers, including children. Along the way, you’ll learn about both local human and natural history.
After completing the hike, check out the famous La Jolla Cove. This small crescent bay is great for snorkeling and exploring the tide pools among the rocks. It’s a magnificent spot for kids to swim. Even if you have only one day in San Diego, it’s worth at least a quick stop.
Once you’ve had some adventure, check out Children’s Pool La Jolla, where you might see sea lions and seals. Despite the name, there’s little swimming for the kids when the animals are around.
Before heading on to our next stops, enjoy a meal at Brick & Bell Cafe, one of the many breakfast options in the area, to fuel up.
Swim, walk, and ride at Mission Beach
The next location on your San Diego itinerary is Mission Beach, a 20-minute drive south of La Jolla via Pacific Beach. Mission Beach is one of the top beaches in the San Diego area, with great swimming conditions and some fun surfing. Spend a short while enjoying the beachfront area and taking in some sun.
Once you’re all rested, wander along the iconic Mission Beach Boardwalk. The promenade runs for three miles up the coast, taking you past ice cream parlors, mini-golf courses, and the popular Belmont Park. This paved path is perfect for strollers, cyclists, and joggers and is a lovely way to experience local culture.
If you want some adrenaline-pumping fun, check out Belmont Park. This theme park is free to enter, but you’ll need to buy tickets to ride the famous wooden roller coaster. Enjoy the exciting arcades that are a throwback to the classic carnivals of years past.
On the other side of San Diego’s Mission Beach neighborhood is Mariners Point Park. On the edge of Bonita Cove, the scenic peninsula features its own beach with calm waters and plenty of room for a family picnic. The water flows into the enormous Mission Bay, just a five-minute drive from the beach.
You could spend the whole day exploring the bay’s hiking trails, venturing out onto the water, and visiting SeaWorld, but after a leisurely stroll through the park, it’s on to our next destination…
Go on a trip into the past at Old Town San Diego State Historic Park
A 10-minute drive downtown brings you to Old Town San Diego State Historic Park. This next stop on your journey provides a glimpse into the birthplace of California. Here, people first settled in San Diego back in 1769, beginning a timeline that would change California’s history.
Today, the historical park is filled with 19th-century buildings, a delicious array of restaurants, and plenty of entertainment. You can even spend the night here! As you explore Old Town San Diego, you’ll learn about Mexican-American history in southern California while enjoying some fun window shopping at over 100 boutique shops.
For some more fun experiences, check out the Whaley House Museum, believed to be the most haunted home in the country. Or exercise your thighs with a walk up to Presidio Park to explore its historic monuments and enjoy beautiful views over Old Town and the Mission Valley.
If you’ve built up an appetite, there are several great lunch spots around Old Town. For an authentic taste of Mexico, chow down on tacos, enchiladas, and other Mexican food favorites at Casa de Reyes or Casa Guadalajara.
Oddly enough, Italian dishes also abound here, with Pizza Bella Italian Bistro and Jack & Giulio’s Italian Restaurant being two of the top choices around the neighborhood.
Visit the museums at Balboa Park
No one-day San Diego trip itinerary would be complete without visiting the wonderful Balboa Park. A 10-minute drive from Old Town, this park is a brilliant mix of nature and cultural activities. It’s the Central Park of San Diego and holds a distinguished position in local life.
You won’t just find trees and lush lawns in Balboa Park. Beyond its natural beauty, the natural & cultural park is home to many of the city’s top-rated museums.
Within Balboa Park, you’ll be able to visit the San Diego History Center, check out the Air and Space Museum, and explore the San Diego Art Institute. Sadly, it’ll be a push to visit the park’s amazing slate of 15 museums in just 24 hours. Pick just one to check out before continuing your journey.
After exploring your chosen museum, take some time to visit the park’s serene botanical gardens. It’s been a hectic day so far, so enjoy some peace and rejuvenation on the banks of the ornate ponds and lakes. For the classic Balboa Park photo opportunity, take a picture of the Botanical Building over the Lily Pond from El Prado.
Last on the park’s list is the San Diego Zoo. Those with kids may want to dedicate their whole time in San Diego to the impressive zoo, home to over 3,500 animals.
Stroll along San Diego’s beautiful Embarcadero
As the sun begins to fall over San Diego, it’s time to make your final 10-minute drive toward San Diego’s vibrant downtown. Curving around the inner city is the San Diego Embarcadero. It begins just south of the airport and runs along the waterfront until it ends at Embarcadero Park.
The walk is roughly two miles long and brings you past some of the top tourist attractions in San Diego. Right off the bat is the Maritime Museum of San Diego, where you can see (and even explore) vintage ships.
Continue onto the USS Midway Museum, home to the United States’ longest-serving aircraft carrier. In front of the museum is the statue of Unconditional Surrender, featuring a recreation of the iconic image from 1945 of a sailor kissing a woman in the street.
As the path curves around, you’ll arrive at Seaport Village. The waterfront complex is one of the city’s coolest destinations, with lovely restaurants, shopping, and public art in a charming Victorian-era setting. Grab a quick bite to eat & drink, kick back, and watch the sun fall behind the San Diego Harbor.
Enjoy dinner and drinks in the Gaslamp Quarter
There’s only one place to end your 24-hour San Diego itinerary, and that’s in the Gaslamp Quarter. A six-minute drive from the Embarcadero, the historic quarter is laden with old-fashioned Victorian architecture, including rows of lampposts that light the cobblestone streets once the sun has fallen.
The San Diego Gaslamp Quarter exudes charm and romance like few other districts in the United States. The district is a throwback to past eras, yet its hospitality is modern and cutting-edge.
It’s hard to believe the quarter wasn’t always so elegant; the neighborhood used to be a rather seedy part of town in the mid-20th century before seeing a resurgence in recent decades.
Begin with a visit to the neon Gaslamp Quarter sign at the southern end of Fifth Avenue. From there, explore the 16-block district, offering a vibrant mix of romantic restaurants, dimly lit cocktail bars, and a rowdy pub or two. If you have time earlier in the day, you can also do some fantastic shopping here.
With dinner time inching closer, the Gaslamp Quarter will leave you with a multitude of choices to end your evening. For outdoor dining in the heart of the district, there’s hardly a better option than the farm-fresh menu at Rustic Root. If upscale seafood and fish dishes with a warm ambiance are on your mind, book a table at Lionfish Modern Coastal Cuisine.
The Gaslamp Quarter is a memorable place for couples, friends, and families to explore. After the kids are asleep, the revelry continues to pick up. Crowds flock to the bars featuring dueling pianos, rooftop pubs slinging craft beers, and wide-open dance floors, ready to bring together locals and travelers from all over.
Where to stay with 24 hours in San Diego
If you’re visiting on a time crunch, the best places to stay in San Diego include Downtown, the Gaslamp Quarter, Old Town, and Coronado. Although accommodation rates will be higher in each of these areas and neighborhoods, you’ll be within short reach of many of the sights included in this one-day travel plan. If you’re visiting in the high season, be sure to book your lodgings reservations well in advance.
Just a short walk from the Embarcadero, the SpringHill by Marriott places you within walking distance of all the downtown highlights. The range of rooms makes it great for larger groups along with families. Guests will enjoy cable TV, modern amenities, a swimming pool, and a fitness center. From the hotel, you can walk to the Gaslamp Quarter and the USS Midway Museum.
Further into downtown, the Hotel Republic provides guests with upscale accommodations and a great launching point for adventures. Guests will have access to three on-site restaurants and a contemporary art gallery. The hotel also has an outdoor terrace and nightly bonfires. You’re just a few minutes from local breweries and a half-mile from the Gaslamp Quarter.
Why walk to the Gaslamp Quarter when you can stay in it at the Staypineapple, Hotel Z? This unique hotel has a colorful facade that’s impossible to miss. It offers pet-friendly accommodations, cable TV, and cozy furnishings. Guests can even borrow bicycles for free to explore the quarter and the waterfront.
More San Diego itinerary ideas
Sunset Cliffs Natural Park
The Embarcadero isn’t the only great place to watch the San Diego sunsets. Slightly south of Ocean Beach, you’ll find the aptly named Sunset Cliffs. The west-facing cliffs provide a special front-row seat for a spectacular sunset.
A Pacific Ocean sunset isn’t something that travelers should pass up, especially if you’re from other parts of the U.S. The wide-open scenery acts as one big canvas, and the sun paints it with a warm burst of colors every evening.
Especially on a clear evening, be sure to arrive early as you won’t be the only ones there. Once you’ve arrived, all you can do is wait and relax, but be sure to keep an eye out for the elusive green flash.
Further south of Sunset Cliffs lies Point Loma, home to the Cabrillo National Monument. The point marks the beginning of the enormous San Diego Bay, and it comes with a series of great hiking trails, tide pools, and plenty of Californian history.
You could switch out time at Mission Bay or Old Town San Diego to explore Point Loma. Everyone can enjoy the simple hiking trails bringing you to wondrous ocean and city views. When the tide is out, visitors can make their way down to the water to explore the interesting tide pools before making their way to the Cabrillo National Monument Visitor Center.
You’ll also be able to visit and climb Old Point Loma Lighthouse on Open Tower Days, scheduled in advance.
Your San Diego adventure focuses on the northern districts and downtown, but to the south of the city is Coronado Island. This is on the other side of San Diego Bay; you can drive here via the scenic Coronado Bridge or on a brief ferry ride.
Here you’ll find miles of beachfront, with the main Coronado Beach stretching for 1.5 miles. The seemingly endless coast has great surf, fun swimming, and soft golden sand. It’s a popular alternative to Ocean and Mission beaches.
The compact downtown area has many great places to eat, including several amazing seafood restaurants, such as the Bluewater Boathouse. One landmark to check out is the historic Hotel del Coronado, another great place to stay.
Torrey Pines State Reserve
If you’re feeling adventurous while in San Diego, the best place to go is Torrey Pines State Reserve. The reserve boasts a gorgeous forest of Torrey pines, leading you to a dramatic coastline, with the park quickly dropping to the Pacific Ocean.
It’s an adventure haven, and you’ll soon forget how close you are to the big city. Here, some of the most popular San Diego hiking trails will take you along the cliff’s edge or to ocean views; either way, you’ll often be reaching for the camera to capture all these memorable moments.
During the summer months (one of the most popular seasons to visit San Diego), the park’s rangers lead insightful nature walks through the park, providing the opportunity to learn about its history and the importance of the critically endangered Torrey pines.